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  Víctor Vázquez
"La barca de barro"

Víctor Vázquez
Elizabeth Ferrer

Over the last decade, artists working in the Caribbean have witnessed unprecedented recognition from the international art community, seen most visibly in the unabated interest in young Cuban artists as well as in the worldwide attention now paid to the Havana Bienal, which has shed significant light on scores of innovative artists from the region. Moreover, several large survey exhibitions of contemporary art from the Caribbean have been presented by museums in the United States and Europe, and critical notice has been shown by way of new scholarship and publications, all devoted to exploring once neglected artists and national movements. Puerto Rican artists, however, have held a marginal place within this activity. Puerto Rico holds political status as a commonwealth of the United States but culturally, it has more in common with other Caribbean islands and even with some Latin America countries than with most of the U. S. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is often seen simply as “American,” leading, for example, to Edward Lucie Smith’s exclusion of its artists in his 1993 book, Latin American Art. He cited the opinion that “it is difficult to draw an absolute line separating 20th century Puerto Rican art from that of the United States.”1 And yet within the United States, it is not uncommon for curators and critics to view Puerto Rico (if they view it at all) as a place apart, one separated from the mainland and the from mainstream art scene, whether by geography, language, or cultural influence. To complicate matters, many artists born on the island are based in the United States, primarily in New York, meaning that the Puerto Rican art scene has two disparate geographic centers. In fact, fully one-third of Puerto Ricans living on the island, at some point in their lives, have resided in the New York area. It is hardly surprising then, that Puerto Rican artists are motivated by what scholar Marimar Benitez has termed “a neurotic imperative” to produce art that speaks to issues of personal and collective identity, cultural duality, and indeed, cultural survival.2

One of the most significant artists to emerge out of the Puerto Rican art scene in the last decade is Víctor Vázquez. Born in 1950 in San Juan where he is now based, he spent his formative years as a student and young artist in New York. Vázquez’s work – principally photographs of the nude body, but also installations, sculptural objects, and, most recently, videos – can be read as an eloquent statement on the nature of Caribbean identity at its most fundamental level. Evident in his work are symbols and ideas drawn from ancient traditions as well as from popular culture on the islands – animist concepts, indigenous forms, and the still vital Afro-Caribbean religious practices that epitomize the cultural syncretism that has marked nearly every aspect of life in the region. In addition, Vázquez photographs his subjects with masks, plants, or other natural elements that evoke the culture and environment of Puerto Rico. While this island, and more broadly, the Caribbean, has provided him with much inspiration, his goal is to express universal concerns and the most primal aspects of the human condition.

As a photographer, Vázquez takes a highly fluid approach to his medium and its presentation. His works are typically large-scale black-and-white photographs that he tones with oil and hand paints with acrylics; he also sometimes tears and reassembles prints and exhibits completed works in elaborate, handmade frames. Vázquez also reuses imagery. One powerful if frightening photograph of the back of a man’s bald head pierced with long nails, for example, has been shown as a single large iconic work, imprinted on a devotional candle that is part of an altar-like installation, and as the center of a polyptych containing other images that themselves have been seen in other contexts. And in his most recent exhibitions, he has presented photographs as components of large multi-media installations.

Vázquez articulated his themes and approach to photography from the very beginning of his career, in great part as a result of a crucial event in his life. In 1983 while living in New York, the artist’s close friend Santiago Barreiro died of AIDS. In a time when the disease did not even yet have a name, witnessing the agonizing death of such a vital young man was emotionally unnerving. It compelled Vázquez to produce a visual chronicle of Barreiro’s last months and eventual death, of the progression of the disease, and the wasting of the young man’s body. El reino de la espera (The Realm of Waiting), the title of book of these photographs published in Puerto Rico in 1991 as well as a subsequent exhibition, offered an emotional narrative exploring the relation between life and death. Vázquez presented the individual works of the series in varying manners, as grainy, sepia-toned prints, photographs of negative images, and compositions that are the result of other kinds of darkroom manipulation, such as a hauntingly dreamlike image of Barreiro’s disembodied face hovering over a hospital bed. Most poignant is a disarmingly direct photograph of the soles of the dead man’s feet, with no other part of his body visible as a result of the camera angle. The composition recalls the elegiac power of Mantegna’s Dead Christ; as in the painting, Vázquez’s photograph captures the sense of the body’s gravity and of the stark quality that the human form assumes in death. Other photographs in the series also portray the fragmented body, such as close-up views of Barreiro’s neck and chest, his face, and torso. With such images, Vázquez delineated the human body as essentially corporeal and natural; death then, can be understood less as a frightening finality than as an inevitable extension of life’s continuous cycle.

Following the completion of El reino de la espera in the early 1990s, Vázquez, now living in San Juan, began to produce the carefully staged photographs of human subjects for which he has become best known. The nude models with whom he works assume poetically elegant poses that express such broad themes as the duality of life and death, the relation between nature and culture, and how we, as humans, discover and define our essential selves. Once a student of religions, Vázquez has drawn from Caribbean spiritual practices like animism, spiritism, and Santería (the latter of which is still widely practiced in varying forms by Caribbean people) for this body of work. But rather than creating literal interpretations of these traditions, he acts to decontextualize symbols and to endow forms with new layers of meaning. Clearly, however, his work manifests a sensibility fundamental to indigenous cultures, in which the spiritual dimension is integrated into every aspect of quotidian life. This is most vividly seen in an image symbolic of ritual like La Ave María I, 1996, a photograph of a woman bearing the claws and heads of chickens upon her shoulders and breasts. The animal parts conjure Santería and the acts of ritual sacrifice associated with this faith, just as the small cross hanging from the picture frame refers to Catholic devotion. In fact, the title La Ave María carries dual meaning; it can be read literally as “Bird Mary” or translated from the Latin as the prayer, “Hail Mary.” Such a work is emblematic of the syncretic nature of Caribbean culture, but Vázquez adds yet another layer of meaning by suggesting the value of private ritual, liberated from meanings ascribed by any particular belief system. The woman’s closed eyes and serene countenance signal a transformative moment brought about by a deeply intimate, recuperative communion with nature.

The related themes of offering and sacrifice are recurrent in Vázquez’s oeuvre. He is keenly aware of the meanings conferred to the performance of such rituals across time and faiths throughout the world – they are enacted to petition a chosen deity in a time of urgent need, to give thanks, provide nourishment for the earth, or to acknowledge humankind’s dependence on the divine for survival in a fragile world. Many of his works take the form of offerings, whether through the portrayal of parts of chickens (as in La Ave María I, or, in another work from 1996, Communion, containing the repeated photographic image of an open hand offering a chicken head), the use of lit candles (photographs and, in installations, actual candles), or depictions of the human form in a pose suggesting that it, itself, is the object of sacrifice. In Falling Feathers, 1996, a reclining female figure appears to ready her own body for sacrifice. She lifts her arms upward to caress both the tree branches that symbolize rootedness to the earth and the feathers that evoke the heavens. Here, sacrifice becomes akin to catharsis; it is a figurative cleansing, a personal rite of purification that leads to a clearer revelation of one’s humanity.

Vázquez underscores the complex nature of spiritual practices in the Caribbean in Bodegón de Yemayá (Still Life of Yemayá) of 1994, a key early work. At the center of the piece is a photograph of a man’s foot pierced with nails is outlined with thickly applied paint, the color of dried blood. The image is further enframed by dark red asphalt roofing shingles. The nails evoke the crucified Christ and the Christian concepts of the crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice and an act of profound love. Vázquez, however, dedicates this work to Yemayá, a Santería orisha (a guardian and deity) who is ruler of the seas and lakes, and the embodiment of maternal love and protection. In transforming a visual symbol so powerfully resonant of the Christian faith into an offering to the Afro-Cuban Yemayá, the artist again refers to cultural syncretism, but he also provokes us to consider how we perceive symbols and ascribe our own meanings to them. Indeed, such a rethinking of symbolic languages reflects how Christian symbols and iconographies assumed new meanings over time as they were incorporated into Afro-Cuban beliefs.

Throughout his career, the human form has been central to Vázquez’s photography; he expresses it as a symbolic form and as the site of ritual, but also, as sensual and the embodiment of human desire. Vázquez relies on the body as his prime subject matter because of its infinite capacity to convey meaning: it can be read as a map of individual experience and emotion, as an expression of a collective history, and as a reflection of both the spiritual and physical aspects of our being. Some of his images show the body fragmented; his camera will focus on a single hand or foot, a pair of downward falling arms, or the organs that connote the senses – the eyes, ears, or mouth. Especially in his more recent photographs, he displays the body whole, whether in momentary frisson or supine. In some works, the figure seems unaware of the camera as it experiences the pure sensation of being. In others, the subject gazes intently at the spectator, as if to offer a forthright declaration of his or her presence. All of his photographs portray a solitary individual; human interaction is absent, but intentionally so. For Vázquez, the individual and the private acts undertaken for the camera are metaphors for society and for culture; they also become mirrors for the viewer, upon which we can project our own desires, fears, and attitudes.

Vázquez’s models typically wear or hold such items as parts of chickens, feathers, or in one highly erotic work, the phallic stock of a banana plant, forms that point to the body as an extension of nature, closer to the untamed animal than most of us would comfortably acknowledge. In La Ave María II, 1996, he depicts the double image of a woman whose head is covered with chicken claws. Her gaze is insistent, challenging the viewer to confront both the fear and desire implicit in the image. Similarly, Untitled (Lady with a Bone), 1998, portrays a crouching nude woman who clenches an animal bone with her teeth; she seems to simultaneously sneer and laugh. Vázquez printed the image as a double exposure, making her body appear to be in agitated movement. Her feral image signals a literal shedding of propriety and of one’s demons, and an invitation to the spectator to do likewise. But even when showing the body stilled and contemplative as in Falling Feathers, he suffuses it with a tangible undercurrent of vitality. In expressing the duality of human nature – our spirituality and physicality – Vázquez endows the body with a spark of tense energy, a sense of humanity in a never-ending process of reflection and renewal.

Víctor Vázquez’s work has been seen in the United States, the Caribbean, and several Latin American countries, including at such major exhibitions as the 1994 and 1997 Havana Biennials, and the watershed 1994 Fotofest exhibition, American Voices: Latino Photography in the United States, the first major exhibition to document the achievements of Chicano, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican photographers in the twentieth century. In his most recent exhibitions – dramatic installations combining constructed photographic imagery with sculptures, mixed-media works, and videos – Vázquez’s interest in depicting the human body remains readily apparent, but his work has gained greater complexity as he examines other issues as well. In 2000, the Museo de las Américas in San Juan presented Natura–Cultura, a solo exhibition that examined the very means by which visual representation takes place. In it were actual objects used as components of art works (assemblages of everyday belongings such as a pair of shoes, a table setting, all set in dirt-strewn boxes), objects and materials displayed to underscore their symbolic value (feathers, nails, the earth, a roomful of lit candles), and artworks suggesting the range of communicative modes devised by humankind over time: paddle-like forms inscribed with pictograms, piles of books, fragments of photographs, and videos. An array of totemic forms, altar-like constructions, and natural elements lined the walls. And amidst these objects were photographs. Some were small framed portraits hanging from cords that evoked the kinds of pictures that are left by the faithful in Catholic churches as votive offerings. He presented others as sculptural objects, such as a photograph of the artist himself, blindfolded, enframed in a long box filled with feathers. In incorporating photographs into installations, and juxtaposing photographic works with sculptural objects, Vázquez infuses his medium with a powerful sense of physicality not typically associated with photography. He also reminds us of the myriad ways the medium has been put to use, to preserve memories and document our lives, as a means of creating art, and even in religious offerings. With an installation like Natura-Cultura, Vázquez also ties photography to the most basic, earliest impulses of picture making, to visually manifest the supernatural or the divine, and most fundamentally, to denote one’s presence in the world.

Two decades ago, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta wrote, “I have thrown myself into the very elements that produced me” in order to explain both her themes and creative approach.3 Similarly, Víctor Vázquez continually draws from a world close at hand, from those elements that have formed his identity, to produce his work. He reveals his physical surroundings, his cultural sphere, in nearly every element that he photographs or employs in his installations. He uses the local not so much to describe this world (although his images richly perform this function), as to show from his perspective what is at the core of the human psyche, and what binds us over time and place. And above all, it is the human body that expresses the experiences we all share – what it is like to feel fear, pain, or desire; to dream; to be sexual; to feel rooted to the earth. Through photography, Vázquez creates transcendent spaces that in essence, allow the body a place to simply be, and by extension, he provides us with a means to most deeply sense our selves and our relation to the world.

© 2003 Elizabeth Ferrer

1 Edward Lucie Smith, Latin American Artists of the 20th Century (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), p. 8.

2 Marimar Benitez, “Neurotic Imperatives: Contemporary Art from Puerto Rico,” Art Journal (Winter 1998).

3 Ana Mendieta, grant application to the New York State Council on the Arts, March 17, 1982, published in Bonnie Clearwater, ed., Ana Mendieta, A Book of Works (Miami Beach: Grassfield Press, 1993), p. 41.